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Posts Tagged ‘Diana Ross’

(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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The Supremes – “Stoned Love,” Pop # 7, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“Stoned Love” was the Supremes’ biggest hit of the post-Diana Ross era, and with good reason – it sounds like a throwback to the golden Holland-Dozier-Holland age of Motown.

Motown producer Frank Wilson discovered the song when it was played over Detroit radio during a talent search contest. Amazed to find such a mature work had been penned by a local teenager, Wilson worked with Kenny Thomas, the young writer, and arranger David DePitte before presenting the number to Berry Gordy and the Supremes.

In a narrative repeated so frequently it has nearly become a cliché, Gordy hated the song. The reason for Gordy’s dislike is unclear, but there was concern over the title. Thomas and Wilson insisted the title referred to love with a solid foundation, not drug use. The original title, “Stone Love” supports this claim. Somehow the single was mislabeled “Stoned Love” at the pressing plant and the new title stuck.

Just as they had three years ago when the Doors sang “we couldn’t get much higher” on the Ed Sullivan Show, CBS freaked out over the potential reference and cut the song from the girls’ appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

As usual, the censors paid more attention to the hysteria than the work itself. Wilson’s lyrics call for “a love for each other that will bring fighting to an end/forgiving one another” and challenge for the “young at heart” to “rise up and take your stand.”

The hope-filled lyrics brim with the optimism of youth and could easily turn into treacle. Thomas and DePitte turned them into a great showcase for Jean Terrell’s talents. All elements seem to feed off her emotion, particularly the inspired backing vocals of fellow Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. Wilson and Birdsong had been banished from the final recording sessions with Ross and they seem extra happy to be operating as a group again.

From the propulsive snare driving the song, down to the swirling strings and display of voices, the arrangement recalls the Supreme’s finest moments with the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Fans seemed to agree, sending the song to the top of the R&B chart an into the pop Top 10. Again, Gordy’s steadfast, initial instinct had been proven wrong.

The legacy of “Stoned Love” lies more with its title than its tune. Angie Stone incorporated it into the introduction on her “Stone Love” album in 2004, just one of many similar titles it inspired. These include “Stone in Love” by Journey and the smilar “Stoned in Love” by UK dance pop artist Chicane. In 2006 Justin Timberlake released the single “LoveStoned.” None of these songs hold a candle to “Stoned Love.”

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Jackson Five – “I’ll Be There,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

To say that the Jackson 5’s formula was successful would be a terrific understatement. Three upbeat, bubblegum hits, all penned and produced by Berry Gordy and his faceless Corporation, all No. 1 pop and R&B smashes.

Gordy’s decision to break from the formula for the group’s fourth hit was shocking. Not known as one to mess with a sure thing, Gordy dumped the Corporation and partnered with Hal Davis, Willie Hutch and Bob Wests to craft a ballad that placed Michael Jackson directly the spotlight, and relegated his brothers to a support role.

The result was the J5’s most successful single ever, selling 4 million copies in the United States and cementing the band’s career beyond bubblegum. “I’ll Be There” was also the group’s last No. 1 hit; three more singles ceilinged at No. 2.

Only 12 years old at the time, Jackson dumps more emotion into his delivery than many singers twice his age possess. His clarion call to give love another chance is graceful and penetrating. Gordy positioned Diana Ross as the J5’s mentor – her influence shines in Jackson’s delivery, both in phrasing and tone.

“I’ll Be There” was covered by Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz as a duet in 1992. The single was her sixth No. 1 hit, but the less said about her treacly reading the better. More interestingly, it appeared on the fourth album by Southern California punk rockers Me First and the Gimme Gimmes in 2003, who frequently recorded ironic covers. “I’ll Be There” graced two other Motown releases. The Temptations recorded a version for their 2006 album “Reflections” and sister La Toya Jackson cut it for her 1995 covers album. Many artists, including Carey, the New Kids on the Block, Jaime Foxx and Ne-Yo and Green Day performed “I’ll Be There” in tribute to Jackson after his death on June 25, 2009.

Michael Jackson performed “I’ll Be There” on all of his solo tours, frequently getting emotional and breaking down mid-song.

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Diana Ross – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

This was the moment. For years, Berry Gordy had been grooming Diana Ross to become a star. First he pushed the hesitant child to the forefront of the Supremes, then elevated her to top billing. Now she was on her own.

Ross’ first single, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was a respectable Top 20 hit. For anyone else, it would have been a brilliant success. But at Motown, and especially for Ross, Top 20 was not good enough. She had to top the charts.

For her follow-up effort, Gordy turned to Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who also penned “Reach Out.” Instead of writing a new number, however, the pair reached back to a song that had been a Top 20 hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell three years earlier. Their choice wasn’t well received. Ross was hesitant to cut a song that had already been a hit with someone else. Besides, she had also performed the song when the Supremes paired with the Temptations for a television special and album in 1968.

Eventually, Ross was persuaded to record a re-imagined version of the song. While Gaye and Terrell’s arrangement build upon the synergy of their voices, the new vision opens with Ross’ affirmation of love, like a lonely, long-distance telephone call. The backing chorus of Ashford and Simpson, the Andantes and several other Motown studio singers builds slowly in the background underneath Ross’ promises of devotion. By waiting so long to grow into the refrain, the familiar strain is even more powerful.

When the finished track was submitted to Gordy he was not pleased. He thought the song should open with the chorus (an arrangement Ross later used in her live shows). In a story that mirrors Gaye’s recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” it wasn’t until DJs started cutting down the six-minute album track and playing it on the radio that Gordy finally acquiesced. Just as before, “Mountain” made a major star out of its singer.

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” has been played, performed and sampled so often it sometimes feels like a cliché. It seems every time a director wants a feel-good moment when the underdog triumphs they reach for this song (which must make Gordy, Ashford, Simpson and their bankers very happy). When the song reaches ears voluntarily, however, it is still a delight.

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Jackson 5 – “The Love You Save,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The process behind the J5’s two previous singles was too successful and irresistible not to try again. And for the third time, the resulting song stuck at the top of the chart.

The product of a Berry Gordy and the Corporation, “The Love You Save” bears more than a passing resemblance to “ABC” and “I Want You Back.” Don’t fall into the trap of writing off the song as a carbon copy, though. “The Love You Save” has a more complex arrangement – it deviates from AABA structure – and greatly benefits from Jermaine’s supporting vocals. Plus it’s just as infectious and fun as the first two singles.

On their tours in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the Jacksons combined all three songs in one medley. It was an obvious and surefire idea. Put these three together and you’ve got 10 minutes of music guaranteed to put a smile on the most hardened face and get the most sedentary feet moving.

The lyrics in “The Love You Save” echo the warning Diana Ross delivered five years earlier on “Stop! In the Name of Love,” another Motown No. 1. Both songs open hard on the word “stop” and implore their partners to both slow and settle down. Playing these songs back to back shows how far Motown has pushed soul music. The excitement of the Holland-Dozier-Holland composition is tempered by Ross’ mannered delivery that almost turns her pleading into nagging. On the other hand, the Corporation’s number jumps out of the speakers with a kinetic energy and Michael’s charismatic vocals. The supporting string arrangement is only hint of the assembly line Motown sound that HDH developed.

Few artists have covered “The Love You Save.” More noteworthy are the songs penned by Joe Tex and the Holmes Brothers that bear the same name.

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Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“I Want You Back” not only introduced America to the biggest post-Elvis superstar in the world. It also kicked off the unprecedented success of a group having its first four singles top the chart, and returned the mojo Motown lost with the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland.

The Jackson 5 – Michael, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Jackie – were famously raised in Gary, Ind. by their ambitious and abusive father Joe. When his sons started showing musical aptitude, Joe Jackson saw them as his ticket out of the Gary steel mills and, after music lessons, sent them out on the chitlin circuit. Their shows caught the eye of Sam and Dave and Gladys Knight, who recommended the group to Motown chief Berry Gordy. Because Gordy already had one child star with Stevie Wonder, he declined to sign them.

One year later, in 1968, the Jackson 5 were paired with Knight and Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, who were riding their lone Motown hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” Taylor and Knight were so impressed by the J5’s performance that they videotaped an audition and send the tape to Gordy to his new home in Los Angeles. Gordy was still reluctant to sign another child act, but relented after watching the tape.

Of course Knight and Taylor received little credit for bringing the Jackson 5 to Motown. The glory went to Diana Ross, who had nothing to do with the quintet or their signing, but received top billing on their debut album, “Diana Ross presents the Jackson 5.”

The arrival of the Jackson 5 draws a sharp line between the Detroit and Los Angeles eras of Motown. Gordy had recently relocated to Los Angeles to start a film career for both himself and Ross, his lover. Although some early J5 songs were recorded at the Hitsville studio in Detroit, Gordy moved the group out to California for grooming.

Gordy copied the songwriting template of the Supreme’s successful “Love Child” to craft “I Want You Back.” He called three of his best writers – Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and Alphonso Mizell – to help him retool a song originally intended for either Gladys Knight or Diana Ross as either “I Wanna Be Free” or “I Want You Back.” As on “Love Child,” Gordy billed the collective anonymously. After the defection of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Gordy did not want any more of his songwriters to become “back room superstars.” Known only as “The Corporation,” the team wrote many of the Jackson 5’s early hits.

One of the most infectiously joyous songs in the Motown catalog, “I Want You Back” has been covered several times. Nickel Creek recorded a bluegrass version in 2007, two pop girl groups – Cleopatra and the West End Girls – had international hits with their 1990s interpretations. It was recorded by indie rockers Discovery on their 2009 debut, and performed by British singer Mika, KT Tunstall and even Guns N Roses in concert.

“I Want You Back” was sampled by Kris Kross for their 1992 hit “Jump,” and Kanye West for Jay-Z’s 2001 smash “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”

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The Supremes – “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” Pop # 10, R&B # 5

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Life in the Supremes had been rocky for a while. First, Diana Ross got top billing, then founding member Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. To add insult to injury, several tracks credited to Diana Ross and the Supremes were glorified Ross solo tracks, recorded with no input from Birdsong or Mary Wilson.

When Ross finally left to launch a solo career, Wilson regained control of the group. As the sole original member, she became the unofficial leader. For the first time in a while, Wilson’s voice was prominent among the backing vocals. In her autobiography, Wilson recalled that the backing vocals were recorded with the three Supremes sharing a microphone, something the group did frequently in the early days but had not done in years.

Although she never reached the same level of fame as her predecessor, Terrell was an excellent replacement for Ross. Terrell’s voice had greater range and tone with a strong gospel emphasis. Producer Frank Wilson (no relation to Mary), frequently told Terrell to dial back her performance during the recording of “Up the Ladder to the Roof” because he thought Motown listeners wouldn’t like her soulful delivery.

The title is a nod to Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s 1962 hit for the Drifters, “Up on the Roof.” In the Drifters’ song, the roof is a romanticized utopia, free of the worries and stress of urban life. For the Supremes, however, the roof represents not only sex (check the way Terrell coos the lines “where we can be closer to heaven” in the chorus) but commitment and a new life together, stopping just short of being a marriage proposal. Although the string arrangement gives the song an elegant feel, the funky wah-wah guitar and percussion breakdown in the middle is definitely a nod to the times.

“Up the Ladder” successfully launched the “new Supremes,” lodging at No. 10 on the Pop chart and making it all the way to No. 5 on the R&B chart. It was covered by Bette Midler in 1977, the a capella group the Nylons in the early ‘80s and Al Green during his gospel phase later in the decade.

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